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Before Sappho: Helen of Sparta

10 Dec Posted by in • Guest Writers | Comments Off on Before Sappho: Helen of Sparta
Before Sappho: Helen of Sparta

Of course, there is Helen.

Helen of Troy. Helen of Sparta. Helen of the golden-hair and honey-voice. Helen of the swan-neck, the white arms, the silver-sandals. Helen of the terrible beauty. Helen of the thousand ships. Helen of the rosy dawn of history, six hundred years, more or less, before Sappho.

That Helen.

Helen, before and after a war, was a queen.

I remember sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, an old boat even then, during a different war, two thousand five hundred fifty years, more or less, after Sappho.

We sailed across the plains of New Jersey. Although I am golden-haired and white-armed, I already know I am not a princess, know I will never be a queen. I see a sign, I decipher its meaning: the next exit is Sparta. I sing Sparta as if the “t” were a devotion, a libation to Aphrodite or Artemis, the most important letter in all of history. I sing Sparta until I am told to shut up, and then I hum it under my breath.

I am going there – – – Sparta – – – to Girl Scout camp. We campers had our instructions, sent to us beforehand, folded into an envelope. We were not to pack candy, cosmetics, or books. We were to bring a flashlight. I have hidden a few books in my sleeping bag; they bulge and mar what should be the smooth and rounded accomplishment of a beautiful bedroll. I have forgotten the flashlight.

One of my tent-mates, Helen, unrolls her sleeping bag to reveal a bottle of eyeliner. She has brought grape gumballs, only a few of which are broken. She has a mirror.
She has also forgotten her flashlight.

This Helen is afraid of the dark. She tells me it scares her to death.

In the evening, we are encircled with other girls. The moon’s rosy fingers light up the long twilight and we gather around something that looks like a funeral pyre. “This is our tradition,” someone says. “All Girl Scouts sing songs around a campfire and the counselors tell stories they know by heart.”

Helen’s eyes gleam, rimmed with kohl. Her lips are purpled, from the candy. When we have to walk back to our tent in the blackness, I take her hand, safe in the dark, and guide her through the chervil-scented woods.

“You are my hero,” this Helen says. Her words are like water. I am thirsty. I forget my books.

Recall the myth: Helen, Princess of Sparta, was the daughter of her mother, Leda (yes, that Leda). Her father was the god Zeus as a swan, although in an alternative version, her father is Leda’s husband, the mortal King Tyndareus. In all versions, Helen is reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world and has many suitors. Before she chose one, there was an agreement that all the suitors would swear to defend the choice of a husband.  In all versions, the husband chosen was the red-haired Menelaus (brother of Agamemnon).

All was well, more or less, and Helen had a daughter, named Hermione. But then Paris (sometimes called Alexander) of Troy came to Sparta, dragging bits of history and myth and a prophecy or two.

Helen and Paris left Sparta. And then there was war, the Trojan War.

Some say Helen was abducted by Paris.
Sappho says Helen followed the goddess Aphrodite.

Some say Helen and Paris went to Troy

Of course, Paris is a woman.
When Paris showed up, Helen understood those hazy feelings she’d been having since she was a girl afraid of the dark in Sparta. She understood that she would have to leave her daughter Hermione behind; she would never win a custody battle, even then.

Years later Helen finds me through the ethernet, through the wi-fi, through my I-phone. Helen of the girl scout camp, of the kohl-eyes and grape-candy lips. Helen of the fear of the dark.

That Helen.

She has become a computer programmer. She’d like to “reconnect.” She has a profile on and one on facebook. We can network.

Some say Helen is a myth.
Sappho says Helen was a mortal woman.
I say every mortal woman is a myth.

Helen of Sparta is excerpted from “Logos” originally published in TRIVIA, which is part of a three part series “Before and After Sappho,” published in Law and Literature and in Stetson Law Review.  Ruthann Robson is Professor of Law and University Distinguished Professor at City University of New York, the author of Sappho Goes to Law School and the novel a/k/a.  More about her work is available at

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